Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte is a piece written for a string quartet, one of the most respected and commonly used genres in chamber music. One might expect this particular composition to be worlds away from the works historically written for this genre, as Entr’acte was composed by a 21st-century composer. However, upon listening to the piece, I was surprised to discover that Shaw does not conform to these expectations, but instead has created a work that incorporates many elements that can easily be tied back into the Western art classical tradition. With its homophonic texture, clear form and relatively stable tonality, there is little room left in the piece for ambiguity. Even so, Shaw uses every bit of space available to her with rapid meter changes and extended techniques, resulting in an incredibly well rounded piece that provides the listener with a taste of 21st-century compositional characteristics. Entr’acte is a masterfully written work that merges different eras of music, Classical and contemporary, in the most elegant, tasteful way, capturing and preserving the attention of the audience.
Entr’acte is staged in a Minuet and Trio structure, a form that thrived in the 18th-century. The Minuet, set in the key of D minor, showcases a nostalgic, emotionally charged melody. With each subsequent return, this lyrical theme develops further, both dynamically and harmonically. The expressiveness is enhanced by the driven, ostinato rhythm, set in compound triple meter. In the Minuet, Shaw juxtaposes this poeticism with ambivalence in harmony, as well as voice-like, whispering effects, created by the musicians bowing the body of their instruments. Shaw then returns to the opening statement, creating a rounded binary form within the Minuet.
The Trio presents itself in the key of E-flat Major, unrelated to the initial D minor key of the Minuet. This change in key from major to minor provides contrast with a clear separation between the two sections, enticing the listener even more. The Trio, with its binary form, sets off on an emotional journey ranging from the resonant, consonant melodies in the A section, to the direct quotation of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in the B section. In the opening section of the Trio, Shaw provides simple harmonies and phrasing, reminiscent of the Classical style of composing. While the violist and the second violinist are coloring the music and keeping the rhythm grounded with left hand pizzicatos, the first violinist and cellist are playfully imitating each other, resulting in an “echo” effect. The A section is then contrasted with the driven Fratres quote found in the viola part, the protagonist of the B section. Shaw puts the violist in charge of creating tension through harmony and dynamics in its heavily textured, arpeggiated line. The meter is emphasizing this culmination further, constantly shifting from duple to mixed, abandoning our predictions of the triple meter commonly used in Trio sections. Prior to the return of the Minuet, the piece slowly dissipates through false harmonics and downward glissandos, which creates a “falling down” effect. It appears as though Shaw intended to convey a different mood for the return of the opening theme, now making it dreary and weary. The very end features the cello alone, arpeggiating pizzicato chords, bringing the listener back to the familiar D minor key, and adding a sentimental longing for the past.
Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte features a wide variety of styles, merging together the music from the Classical period, the 20th and the 21st-century. The quartet presents an ever-changing journey where the compositional ideas organically flow and melt into one another, all the while preserving the sense of familiarity through form, and nostalgia through harmony. Shaw created an attention grabbing piece whose elegance will leave no audience member unimpressed.